Two hundred years ago, yesterday, the Prince Regent was voted the freedom of the City of London. But another event which had taken place just three months previously meant the presentation could never take place. Therefore, the Prince Regent was denied the freedom of the City of London, and would never again be considered for that honor.
Just what was the freedom of the City of London, and why was it denied to the Prince Regent?
The concept of the "freedom" of a city dates back to antiquity. In Roman times, an army might be given the freedom of a city, which in that case meant the soldiers were allowed to enter a city wearing their uniforms, formed up in ranks and, most importantly, carrying their weapons. A city who granted such freedom to a military force had to have great trust in the leader of that force, for once the soldiers entered the city, its citizens were completely at their mercy. As you might imagine, few cities conferred a military freedom.
By the middle ages, many cities also bestowed a civil version of the freedom of their city. But the civil freedom was given only to free men, that is, men who were free to own property and engage in commerce, men who were not bound to a feudal lord. The freedom of a medieval city meant the holder of that honor had the right to own a home and/or business in the city and conduct trade there, protected by the laws of the city. These men were also expected to abide by the laws of the city in which they held a freedom. Records show that the City of London conferred its first freedom in 1237. For the next six centuries, until 1835, the freedom of the City of London was conferred with the sponsorship of one or more of the Livery Companies of the city. At least one livery company would have to put forth the name of a candidate for the freedom of the city at a meeting of the Court of Common Council. Though this council voted on any proposal to grant the freedom of the city to a potential candidate, no one on the council had the right to put forth a candidate, unless they were themself a member of a livery company and had the support of that company for the candidate. For the most part, the livery companies would send a representative to a council meeting and those representatives would propose candidates to be considered for the freedom of the city.
But the freedom of London was not just conferred upon the merchants and businessmen of the city. Over the centuries it had more and more frequently been bestowed upon Englishmen of any rank, who had rendered some significant service to the city, or to the country. It was considered a signal honor, even by men in the highest ranks of the English nobility, who were happy to accept it, should it be offered to them. The Prince Regent was just as eager to receive the freedom of the City of London as were most of his subjects, at all ranks. On 5 May 1811, the London Court of Common Council voted to present the Prince Regent with the freedom of the city. However, during the planning for the presentation ceremony, it was discovered that Court etiquette prohibited the Prince from receiving this honor, because, as Regent, he legally stood in the stead of the Sovereign. If this honor had been voted to him before he had taken the Regency oath, just three months previously, he would have been able to accept it. But, as the Regent, he was the legal monarch of the realm, and the freedom of the City of London could not be offered to him. No King of England had ever been given the freedom of the City of London in the long history of the city, and no one was willing to contravene this centuries-old tradition, so the plan was dropped and the presentation never took place.
In London, when the freedom of the city was presented to a recipient, a small scroll was inscribed with their name and the details of their special privileges as a freeman. This small scroll was then rolled and placed inside a small box. By the Regency, this small presentation box was often silver or gold, in which case, it would be inscribed with the name of the recipient, the date of the presentation and oftentimes some brief statement about the reason for the honor. These boxes were often the size and shape of a snuff box, and many recipients would use them for that very purpose after the presentation. The Duke of Wellington was given the freedom of the City of London during that celebratory summer of 1814, and his scroll of privileges was placed inside a small gold box. Prinny, however, may have been rather disappointed if he had actually been given his scroll of privileges, as records show that it would have been placed in a box of polished oak. However, the oak has important and powerful political and cultural significance in England, so the Regent might very well have been pleased with the choice of oak for his box. Since the scroll of privileges which was intended for the Prince Regent was probably larger in size than one which might have been offered to someone of lesser rank, it would have been prohibitively expensive to place it in a box made of precious metal. Oak would therefore have been a less costly, but symbolically significant substitute.
In 1835, the London Court of Common Council passed a resolution which abolished the need for the sponsorship of a livery company in order to grant anyone the freedom of the city. From that time forward, nearly anyone could "purchase" the freedom of the city by means of an exceptionally large donation to the Freeman’s School of the City of London. But even had George IV survived into 1835, he is the one person in all of Great Britain who could not have bought himself the honor of the freedom of the City of London. Not because he could not afford it, though his debts would have been even more enormous by then, but because he was still the legal Sovereign of the realm and still ineligible to become a freeman of London. Rather a pity, really, since Prinny thoroughly enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance which went with such presentation ceremonies, particularly when he was the one receiving the honor. But, on the other hand, he was not about to give up his Regency powers, or later, his throne, for the chance to be a freeman of the City of London. One assumes the Prince Regent was able to deal with this lost honor with equanimity.